“The time has come,” said Vargas, apparently prompted by contemplation of the ice bucket he had just filled from a freezer in his cellar, in order to chill his famous Expeditionary Tonic of dark rum, espresso, and flavors less identifiable, “to speak at last of the so-called mammoth we discovered on our Arctic expedition. Hard to believe that was 1947. Seems like only last year.”
He fussily packed a measure of ice into every glass on a silver tray, then poured in his dark, viscous cocktail, stopping only when the crystalline chunks jostled at the brim. Vargas offered the tray around until each of us held a frosty glass. The shades of the study were drawn, the air still and warm, even with the broad blades of a fan stirring the ceiling shadows. My first mouthful of the inky concoction smacked of unknown spices and, even more evocatively, of cold climes infinitely preferable to the one where we now waited, sweat seeping into our ascots, for Vargas to get on with it.
“‘So-called’ mammoth?” said Guzman. “In what sense, ‘so-called’?”
Vargas, sipping, settled into the massive, much-patched leather armchair he dubbed his camp stool. It had traveled the world with him, nailed to the floors of storm-rocked staterooms, hauled on sleds across the tundra, carted by camels across deserts. It was as much a magic carpet as an armchair; he claimed that it absorbed all his stories and bore them home again; as long as it accompanied him, he and it must always return. Whatever artifacts his expeditions unearthed belonged to the University, but the stories were Vargas’s alone.
“We found the image in an ice crevasse,” he said. “And when I say we, I refer to the expedition’s least fortunate member, young João Ferdinand, to whom I raise a toast in memory. The only crewman I will honor with a name.”
“The…the image? What of the mammoth? Your chair is leading you down several plots at once.”
“They are all one,” said Vargas, lowering his glass. “To João, it must have seemed a phantom, though his thoughts on the subject will never be known. Long before we could reach him, he was coughing up blood, his lungs punctured by fangs of rock at the bottom of a slippery plunge.”
“Dear me,” gulped Guzman, though we all knew he secretly relished the gory details.
“He must have spied it from the icy ledge above, leaned over for a better view, and lost his grip. I like to imagine they shared a moment together, he and that shaggy spirit, before the life bled from his lips, leaving it once more alone in the crystal blueness of the cave, as it had been almost forever. This time, however, its solitude was brief, for already we had staked our ladders and were lowering them into the crevasse. Our rescuers gave hearty shouts of encouragement, as much for themselves as for João. There was never any reply. We felt quite certain of the worst.
“One at a time we descended through a luminous blue haze, a supernal effulgence I’ve never seen elsewhere, till we reached the adamant floor. And seeing our young companion plainly beyond help, I hope we can be excused for turning our attention promptly to the strange miracle that presided over his poor body like a mangy saint.”
“Did you descend yourself, or were you attending all this from the camp, in your damned chair?”
“Guzman!” I said. “There’s no call for such an insinuating tone!”
He loudly crunched his ice, to irritate me.
“I left my chair for this, of course,” Vargas said. “I oversaw João’s removal, so that the others could concentrate on the task of uncovering the frozen brute which dominated the luminous chamber.”
“So-called. It stood nineteen feet tall, and occupied the bulk of a massive stalagmite in the center of the cavern. It was possible to completely circumnavigate the pillar of ice, to regard the creature from every angle, and we had the sense that we were not the first to have done so. Etchings we could barely see beneath layered ice on the walls of the cave suggested early attempts at depiction; or perhaps they were maker’s marks, who knows? Our attention at that time was on the column and what it contained. The ice grew more fogged and distorted as we surrounded it and worried the specimen with picks and torches. We quickly reached agreement that whatever funds and time we had set aside for further exploration, we must eschew all other diversions and concentrate on making the most of this discovery. Our only thought now was to extract the specimen from the cave and ensure its hasty return to the University, where it would be given the care that forty-five thousand years in ice could not provide.
“Summoning our entire crew from the expedition ship, our camp soon came to resemble a small industrial town. Our engineers enlarged the narrow opening of the crevasse, installed enormous cranes they had dismantled and carried from the ship. They measured the mammoth’s dimensions from every angle, with a degree of accuracy necessary for its careful removal, so we remain quite certain of what we excavated. Maddeningly, photographs proved unable to capture the mammoth from any angle; even our most careful attempts showed only reflective planes and occlusions within the ice. Once it had been thoroughly documented, they began to chisel and saw and pry and tote, with edged tools and cutting torches. Eventually they hoisted and hauled and swung the sawn-off block of ice to the surface. Whereupon they rested and celebrated through an entire arctic day. It was in this drunken spree that mistakes were made by crane operators, and the cranes themselves, destabilized, were nearly lost into the excavation space. We narrowly rescued the cranes and their operators, but the crevasse itself collapsed. And now we’ll never know what was etched on those walls, or whether we might have found observations or instructions there.”
“How conveniently unfortunate,” said (not Guzman this time, but his reliable stooge) Ibáñez. Guzman continued munching in a manner that set my teeth on edge.
“Fortunately, we had our sled ready, and the ship had been prepared to receive the massive specimen. The journey to the edge of the continent was not without incidents—”
“—but they concern us not here.”
From Guzman: “Crunch-munch.”
“Suffice to say that we soon had the block ensconced in an expanded freezer compartment built into an enlarged section of the hold. With the season coming to an end, we broke camp and brought the entire crew back aboard. There had been only a few casualties, João being the most memorable. In short, the expedition at that moment seemed a complete success. I and my chair were well content as we set off through iceberg-choked seas, the weather being such that initially we had little need for artificial refrigeration.
“This all changed as we approached temperate zones, and the situation grew dire once we entered the tropics. Here the refrigeration system began to groan and labor and complain.”
“No comment from you, Ibáñez,” I said to forestall him.
“We did what we could to maintain a hard freeze, but the humidity, the strain upon our electrical systems…it all proved too much. First we detected increasing beads of moisture on the ice, making the mammoth within seem to ripple, looking somehow insubstantial. This was the fault, I believe, of the ship’s crew, who were forever slipping in to gaze upon the miracle. This beast with its huge hairy brown flanks and upcurled ivories sharper and more gleaming than the ice that encased them, its trunk looking flexible enough to snake out and snatch a peanut or some other treat from a sailor’s pocket.
“Complaints lodged by myself curtailed most such visits, and a padlock installed on the door cut off the rest. But even so, the coolant system was under unexpected stress. It had been designed to chill a modest supply of fresh and frozen goods, not a massive block totaling tons. As we crossed the Equator, in a turbulent sea, it failed completely. The block came loose and slid repeatedly across the chamber, crushing the coolant coils that we had the means neither to replace nor repair. The thawing of the beast proceeded apace. More tonic?”
It took a moment for us to realize what our host offered, and we eagerly agreed. Vargas topped up our drinks, tonged in a bit more ice, and settled back into his chair. The cynical comments had ceased. We were all like children, anxious for the next installment of our serial.
“There was still a small hope of preserving the specimen, though it faded as the voyage dragged on. The block itself dwindled hour by hour, reduced to a puddle on the freezer’s floor, vanishing down the drains. You know how long a solid block of ice will last if you don’t break it up…well, for a time we thought we might be lucky, that it might provide its own cooling system. But still, we braced ourselves for the first ghastly whiff of putrefaction. It was some consolation that even badly rotted mammoth meat, although a torment to the nose, would provide our scientific staff the chance at a dissectible specimen.
“But neither our hopes nor our fears were to be rewarded. Instead, as the ice cube thawed, the mammoth went with it.
“By the time the ice had been reduced to two thirds of its original proportions, one might have expected some part of the creature within to have protruded into the warm tropic air. A tip of ivory tusk, a woolly pate. Something! Instead, the mammoth appeared to diminish in exact proportion to the ice encasing it. It seemed to recede into the ice, maintaining its relative distance from the sides.
“We were a ship full of scientists, so of course we did our best to refrain from unfounded speculation…yet, even the founded sort was difficult to constrain. Some conjectured that what we were seeing was an illusion caused by misunderstood optical properties of ice, and this is still a reasonable hypothesis, though we lack the specimen for further study.
“By the time the block had reached one third of its original size, engineers from a passing ship managed to restore our refrigeration system, which halted the thaw. But by this time, sad to say, superstitions had the crew in their grip. Our scientific theories were unable to dispel the least of these. The mammoth too was now a third of its original size, although still perfectly preserved. Its beady eyes yet glinted, its tusks were still upraised, its woolly tufts appeared tousled by a breeze that once had blown across a green Arctic steppe. In fact, there were some, myself included, who felt that as it dwindled, there was a reciprocal increase in the intensity of resolution and clarity, giving the specimen a crispness it had previously lacked. It was even thought that if you looked closely, you might make out the stalks of a hardy grey-green sedge between its woolly pads. But again, that could have been an illusion caused by spectral properties of the ice. Even having seen the effect myself, I remain uncertain.
“But all our observations, intended to support reason, provided unexpected nourishment to fear. One midnight we woke to hear a drunken roaring from the hold, followed by crashing and shattering. My first thought was that someone was breaking windows, but the sound was not the same. Appalled, I realized that it must and could only be ice.
“Soon we were all gathered in the freezer…myself, the full complement of scientists and sailors and crew, the intoxicated crewman, who would claim the next day to remember nothing of his actions. Underfoot were a million shards of primordial ice. Ice chips, I say, with not a bit of bloody or hard-frozen mammoth meat among them. No flesh…but in each bright crystal, in each melting shard, one could see the complete mammoth. There were thousands of them, melting in our palms, scattered across the frozen floor.
“There was no way to preserve more than a fraction of the pieces we swept up. To make matters worse, our refrigeration troubles soon returned. Before the ship reached port, all but a handful of the largest pieces had melted away. These were quickly removed to reliable University freezers, though it was clear to those of us who had been keeping records that since the destructive episode, there had been further and irreversible degeneration of the image’s integrity. The fracturing event had distorted each bit of mammoth, some more than others. So even once the ice was effectively ‘put on ice,’ the images continued to deteriorate, until most bore no more than a faint suggestion of tusks, or the sketchy outline of a shaggy shape that could as easily have been a moth as a mammoth.
“In the end, only three substantial shards, unremarkable except for their history, were preserved by the University as relics of the expedition. They can still be viewed by anyone curious enough to go to the trouble. But even the curators of the collection seem to treat them with little interest. Of course, those three were the specimens I allotted to the University once I’d made my own selection. There was a fourth I held back for myself.
“I thought I could do better than the University curators at archival storage, and for a time I succeeded in preserving that last image. But with time, my own efforts failed. The images began to fade, and before they disappeared completely, I thought the best thing I could do was bring the expedition’s findings memorably to life—to make them vivid, if only briefly, to a handful of reliable witnesses who would most appreciate them. A few who could be relied on to speak colorfully and directly of what they had seen at first-hand to be true.”
Vargas raised his glass, tinkled the ice within, and then drained it of the black, concealing tonic.
“My friends,” he said, rising from his chair, “drink deep, and then look closely into your glasses.”
Guzman, just then annoyingly chomping the last of his ice, choked and spit a few watery flecks out into his palm.
It was too late for Guzman. He had emptied his glass. And he had been such an insufferable ass, even Ibáñez declined to let him catch a glimpse of the only known pre-Holocene hologram.
“A Mammoth, So-Called” copyright 2018 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May/June 2018.